Optical Illusions

Berlin, 1990.

They live in a restless silence. The small concrete panel house has become quiet since Jana, their youngest, moved out, but now this is an alien silence, of secrecy, not peace. The wind rustling the conifers outside makes Seckendorf shiver, even though the summer’s heat is turning the lawn to sand. Our house is built on sand, he thinks.

Seckendorf runs a bicycle shop nowadays, Stefanie is always busy at the polyclinic. They live modestly, are careful with money. When they have to speak, they talk about topics of general interest, not the Stasi. He doesn’t know if she will try to view her file or not, and he watches her as she moves around the house as if weighed down. He thinks, I should have destroyed that file while I still had the chance, but we were given no orders about the files – and then it was too late.

His old Stasi colleagues usually avoid Seckendorf, but this Saturday is different. He bustles out from behind the counter of his bicycle shop as the glass door opens, and the doormat sets off a two-tone electronic beep.

‘Unterleutnant Meerstadt! My old friend!’ he exclaims cheerily, pushing aside the anxiety which has troubled him all day. But Meerstadt, looking thinner than in the old days, only wants a new derailleur.

With an effort, Seckendorf draws him into conversation. Had Meerstadt seen anything of Grumbkow? Of Wolke? No, he hadn’t. But the memories reawaken in Seckendorf, white railings outside their concrete office block, the typists, the smell of disinfectant on linoleum, the massive steel cupboards of intelligence files. He wants to make Meerstadt remember what it was like, before the Wende, the fall of the Berlin Wall.

‘You were the one who always used to doodle on your notepad during meetings,’ says Seckendorf.

Meerstadt frowns, puzzled. ‘What, the optical illusions?’ he says.

‘Yes, boxes that turned themselves inside out, faces inside faces. I was surprised that Oberstleutnant Wolke never said anything, it was irritating,’ says Seckendorf, grinning. His irritation is now in the past, reduced to nostalgia.

‘Oh – it was harmless,’ says Meerstadt. He glances briefly over his shoulder, moves closer, drops his voice, bristles his eyebrows. ‘Those meetings took too long, don’t you think – what was the good? It wasn’t intelligence, it was shit, it was the bitching of factory workers or the gossip of housewives. ‘He’s lazy and slows down the whole production line.’ ‘She doesn’t sweep her yard properly’. We had too many informants, we opened too many letters, tapped too many phone calls. Anyone with a subversive idea kept it private – no wonder we couldn’t predict what happened.’

‘Still, those were the days, eh?’ says Seckendorf. ‘I miss the old office…’ he gives a short laugh, ‘that old lump of concrete. Coffee in the staff room, currywurst at the snack bar. It was hard work, yes, long hours, yes, but there was commitment. Nothing I do now is any good.’

‘At least you’ve got your shop. I’m just drawing unemployment insurance. No-one employs ex-Stasi.’ The bags under Meerstadt’s eyes sag so much that Seckendorf can see the pink linings of the lower lids; he looks washed up, he thinks, the cardigan too, shabby.

Modestly, Seckendorf says, ‘Well, we depend on Stefanie’s salary now. I’m lucky I married a nurse.’

‘And how is Frau Seckendorf?’ asks Meerstadt. Seckendorf says that she’s fine; she’s visiting her cousin this weekend. Meerstadt narrows his eyes, thinking, smiling, ‘Matthias Weiller, in…Heidelberg? No…he moved to Hanover, in 1978.’

Seckendorf’s stomach has lurched remembering how he came home from the shop and found Stefanie’s note on the kitchen table, but he pushes the anxiety away again, and forces a smile. ‘You always had the best memory in our office.’

‘I miss the old days too,’ sighs Meerstadt. ‘I really believed it, that we were protecting everyone from the bastards in the West. Look how many factories have closed since the Wende? Invaded by multinationals…American fast food everywhere…the same shops in every town, you know how it is.’

‘Hey, we were instruments of State repression, controlling the way people thought. That’s what everyone says,’ says Seckendorf.

‘And all that crap on the television nowadays?’ demands Meerstadt. ‘Doesn’t that control what people think? Anyway…’ Meerstadt shrugs, hands splayed out, and Seckendorf recognises the signal to bring the derailleur, in its Japanese box, down from the shelf, and charge it to Meerstadt’s card.

Clicking the imprinter over the carbonless sales slip, he comments, ‘Remember when we didn’t have these, eh? A blessing or a curse?’

‘Depends how you look at it,’ replies Meerstadt as he signs the slip.

On Sunday, while awaiting his wife’s return home, Seckendorf has prepared a salad. The chicken schnitzels are in the refrigerator in their supermarket packaging, and he dozes in front of the television as the chat show host works his audience. It’s late when he wakes to hear Stefanie opening the front door. He switches off the TV and goes to kiss her.

‘Darling, you should have telephoned, I would have picked you up from the station.’

A light kiss. ‘Oh I’m fine, I caught the bus, and my bag wasn’t heavy.’ He follows her into the kitchen. Under the fluorescent striplight, he thinks, she looks washed-up too.

‘You’ve had a long day,’ he says. ‘How are Matthias and Trudi?’ She hangs her jacket over the back of one of the kitchen chairs and sits down at the table. As he makes her coffee and starts to fry the schnitzels, she says that it’s amazing how long it’s taken her to believe that she was free to travel.

‘It was strange to just jump on a train and go all the way to Hanover,’ she says. ‘I still can’t get used to it.’ She says that her cousin and his wife are fine, their daughter Sabine has just got her first boyfriend and is full of silly teenage ideas, it’s strange to be family and yet she has never seen her before. Then she falls silent and he glances up from the frying pan, feeling that anxiety again.

‘Matti asked me if I’ve checked my Stasi file,’ she says quietly.

Seckendorf keeps his voice level. This is the conversation he does not want to have. ‘Why would you want to do that,’ he asks, ‘you’ve never had any trouble?’

‘It was just something he said. Everyone’s checking their files nowadays. Then he said that of course, being married to you, you would have told me if there was anything there.’ Seckendorf turns over the schnitzels, Matthias never liked me being Stasi, he thinks.

He says gently, ‘You know I have never discussed my work with you.’

‘But it was because I started asking him about Dieter. It was really weird.’

‘Who’s Dieter?’ asks Seckendorf, staring into the frying pan. The chicken schnitzels bubble in the oil, and he feels nauseated.

‘He was my penfriend. He said he was a university friend of Matti’s. Matti once showed him a photograph of me and that was why he started writing. We were quite fond of each other, but he suddenly stopped writing, not long before I met you. For some reason, Matti couldn’t remember him at all. It was odd. And Matti said, even if I had sent him a photograph, which he couldn’t remember, why would he show it to his university friends, they wouldn’t have been interested anyway?’

Seckendorf lifts the chicken out of the frying pan and puts the plates on the kitchen table. They sit down.

‘I would have liked to have got in touch with Dieter,’ she says, ‘I mean, I’m sure he’s fine, and married and everything now, it’s just curiosity really, just to find out how he is, and why he stopped writing.’

A cluster of lamps in small yellow glass shades hangs above the table, suspended by different lengths of electrical flex to give a cascade effect. It’s over-bright, and Seckendorf feels interrogated.

‘Matti even said I might be able to find out where my brother is,’ said Stefanie. Her blonde hair, her gold rings, her tanned arms, all gleam under the light. She is still beautiful, thinks Seckendorf. She is saying, ‘I can’t believe that it’s been all this time since the Wende, and Niklas hasn’t made any effort to get in touch. Even if he had escaped to the West, surely he wouldn’t be arrested now, it’s no longer considered a crime, is it?’

Seckendorf, shaking his head, offers her the salad bowl, then helps himself. ‘Mayonnaise, dear?’

‘No thanks. Do you know if I had a file?’ Her wine glass is full, and the chicken and salad is untouched on her plate.

Seckendorf tells her that all family of Stasi employees had to have security clearance, so, yes, she would have a file. He thinks that this is only what she knows already. A silence descends, and when the meal has been cleared, it is time for bed. They are both tired, it is late, yet both lie apart in the bed, feigning sleep, but awake with their thoughts.

Seckendorf thinks of Pandora’s box, a beautiful illusion, full of demons. And as he lies there silently, his heart twisting with anguish, he thinks of every way he can to keep Stefanie from reading her file, but he knows he is doomed to fail. He knows that she was thinking about this a long time before she went to see Matthias.

As his eyes close in the dark, he sees, as though on microfilm, the buff cardboard folder, its smell of old paper, the thick bundle of typewritten sheets and old letters. He can recite its contents by heart.

The details of her parents, brother and sister.

Her school reports, starting from 1954.

An essay she had written in school in 1964 on ‘Why Socialism Makes a Fairer Society’. A character reference supplied by her youth club to support her application to the School of Nursing. A report from her vocational training year. A copy of her application to study nursing. Informants’ reports – one from the head of the School of Nursing, one from a workman who had gone to her family’s apartment to repair an electrical fault, several from the caretaker of the apartment block.

6 January 1971. Meeting to discuss Operation ‘Vogel’.  Subject’s brother arrested in East Berlin, attempting to cross the border. Unterleutnant Seckendorf suggested surveillance of the subject, who might attempt to contact the organisation which had supplied her brother with his forged passport. It was agreed that her letters would be intercepted at the post office.

’31 January 1971. Dear Matti, I expect you are back at university in Heidelberg by now – I hope this reaches you. I’m glad you had a good Christmas, and write to thank you for your card and photograph. This is one of me and Karolin at Christmas…’

3 February 1971. As part of Operation ‘Vogel’, Kriebich, the agent in Heidelberg, to send letters to the subject. Seckendorf made responsible for content of letters and coordination with Kriebich.

5 February 1971. A report from her hairdresser, recently recruited as an informant. The subject is having her hair cut in a shorter, modern style and now has to visit the hair salon every six weeks.

’13 February 1971. Dear Dieter, It was a charming surprise to receive your letter and photograph. It was naughty of you to steal my address from Matthias, but don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you by telling him! I enjoyed reading about you and your interests. What a coincidence that we are the same age! Unfortunately my job at the hospital does not leave me much time for reading. Here in East Germany, it is still possible for us to travel, although we are not to visit capitalist countries. We have been to Romania and we also enjoy camping trips to the Baltic – the photograph enclosed was taken last summer on the beach at Fehmarn. My brother Niklas took that picture. I really miss him – I haven’t heard from him since he left home. Anyway, do write, I would love to see more of your photographs, and hear about you and your family…’

The photograph, her young body in a bikini, on the beach by the Baltic, laughing, her blonde hair whipped about her face by the wind.

8 April 1971. Meeting to discuss Operation ‘Vogel’. ‘Dieter’ has now sent several letters and received replies, which are taking on a more romantic tone.

14 April 1971. The hairdresser reported a conversation with the subject about her penfriend in the West. ‘Maybe you will be able to meet him one day?’ the hairdresser asked. The subject said no, it was impossible. The subject was asked if her brother had escaped to the West, but replied that he had left home and the family did not know his whereabouts. The hairdresser suggested she should ask his friends. The subject said that she might do this, but in any case the relationship with her pen friend was not serious enough to merit an escape attempt.

16 April 1971. Kriebich was instructed to purchase the subject a gold ring.

’25 April 1971. Dearest Dieter, I am not allowed jewellery at work, but I wear your ring on a chain, close to my heart. It’s so romantic to fall in love with a few pictures and letters. If these mere scraps of paper arouse such emotions, then only imagine the effect if we were to meet! Even to hear the sound of your voice – but sadly that is not possible! My parents have not heard anything about their application for a telephone to be installed at our apartment…’

12 May 1971. A memo has been sent to the Telecommunications Board advising them to refuse the application for the telephone for technical reasons.

3 June 1971. A copy of the letter from the Telecommunications Board advising the Weiller family that, due to lack of capacity at the telephone exchange, their names have been placed on a waiting list.

9 June 1971. ‘Dieter’ has written to the subject, advising her to find out if anyone in the area is aware how to travel secretly to the West.

’26 June 1971. Dearest Dieter, You are so sweet, and I know you so desperately desire to meet me, but I could not consider leaving my country. My parents are already very worried about my brother, we all really miss him, and I could not add to their burden…’

5 July 1971. Case is now closed as we are informed by the Potsdam Regional Office that information obtained under interrogation from the subject’s brother has led to the discovery of the means whereby citizens were obtaining forged documents. Letters from ‘Dieter’ are to cease. Operation ‘Vogel’ discontinued.

15 September 1971. Unterleutnant Seckendorf asked Oberstleutnant Wolke for permission to socialise with the subject, as the operation was over and nothing untoward had been discovered. Unterleutnant Seckendorf stated that he felt it was important that an officer of his age should be leading, as he put it, a regular married life. After a review of the case file, Oberstleutnant Wolke agreed. Unterleutnant Seckendorf was praised for his frankness in discussing this matter with his superior officer prior to making any overtures to the subject.

Stefanie is snoring lightly beside him. Seckendorf smiles uneasily in the darkness and goes to sleep.

A few days later they are again sitting at the kitchen table, under the lights. Seckendorf thinks, I must get bulbs of a lower wattage.

‘I know now why you did not discuss your work with me,’ Stefanie says. She pulls a handkerchief from the cuff of her sweater and twists it in her fingers. He feels it like barbed wire twisting in his heart, mumbles about confidentiality, sensitive matters, national security. He rests his palms on his trouser legs, drying away the sweat, making himself meet her eyes.

‘But you knew that Dieter was a fake, you knew my brother was arrested, and you never said anything to me. You hid it from me.’

He says that he hadn’t the authority, suppose she had given this information to an informant, it could have been very serious, it wasn’t worth the risk, anyway he didn’t want to upset her.

She dabs her tears with the handkerchief. ‘I never even knew Niklas was arrested, I thought he had escaped to the West. That was what I thought, and you let me believe it for all those years.’

‘We were informed that he was held at Hohenschönhausen Prison. That’s all I know.’

She lifts her face. ‘So if he was in prison, where is he now? Where is his file? The Archivist says there is no file.’ He wonders how much she knows about that place, and is silent. It is one of those horrible silences in which there is no peace.

Then he says that maybe the file was sent to Berlin. And, not knowing if it is better left unsaid, he continues, ‘And, I was Dieter. Only, the photograph we sent you was of Kriebich, who was more handsome. But I was the one who wrote those letters. I was the one who fell in love with your picture. That part of it was true, in a way.’

Now tears are running unchecked down her cheeks, nose, lips. He watches her crying, afraid to interfere. Then she says, ‘I can’t live like this.’

He would say anything now. ‘Steffi,’ he implores, ‘I love you dearly, we have a wonderful family. I was a good husband for you, wasn’t I? I was doing my job.’

She stares at him through tears.

‘It just depends how you look at it,’ he says. He pleads with her not to leave, implores her forgiveness, tells her he will do whatever is in his power, use his old Stasi contacts to find out what happened to her brother, if only she will stay. In the end she clings to him, weeping, needing comfort, love, needing to pardon him.

He thinks, after Pandora let all those devils out of the box, all she had left was one spirit. Hope.

This story is available in my anthology:
Link to Amazon.co.uk

© M Wallis 2020

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